What to watch for from U.S. Women’s National Team on Wednesday

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PORTLAND, Ore. — The Tom Sermanni era of United States Women’s National Team soccer is still over a month away, even if the transition period begins tomorrow. At tenuous post-Tom, pre-Pia period means the match will be like most since the U.S. won gold: rich on star power but light on relevance.

A continuation of the States’ prolonged post-Olympic celebration tour, Wednesday’s match against the Republic of Ireland comes two-and-a-half years before the team’s next major competition. It also features an opponent that’s ranked 34th in the world (10 spots below Mexico) that never threatened to get out of their group in Euro 2013 qualifying. If last month’s matches against Germany were overlooked, Wednesday’s may barely be noticed.

The level of competition is a reminder of context. This is a celebration tour. The team’s not preparing for anything; rather, they’re taking this opportunity to leverage a successful Olympic campaign, selling a few tickets in the process.

The most important part of this year-ending, five-match stretch (two against Ireland, three against China) will be a veteran auditioning for their new coach. Even though Jillian Ellis will continue running the team, every player knows Tom Sermanni will be watching. How the team performs in this pre-tryout period will be the main reason to follow the next three weeks worth of games.

Here are some areas to watch, though for a team that’s gone 23-1-3 this year, they’re all relative concerns:

source: AP1. When will the Serrmani effect be felt?

The question is actually assumptive, on three levels. It presumes a new coach (a) who has still not officially taken over will (a) have an effect and (b) that effect’s impact is a matter of when, not if. It’s possible the 58-year-old Scot’s main influence will be on continuity – forcing a bridge between a highly successful Sundhage regime and his own. If that happens, we won’t be able to detect Sermanni’s influence.

Although there were small stylistic differences in how Sermanni’s Australia teams played, the approach was largely the same as a U.S. side that’s aspired to a more possession-sensitive approach in the wake of Germany 2011. When he arrives, Sermanni (right), who has already spoken positively about his new team’s technical qualities (hinting they may be underrated), will help this progression, though we’re unlikely to see much difference in the interim.

Still, as a Portland crowd who have been waiting for Caleb Porter know, an absentee coach’s effects can still be felt. If you see this U.S. team show a sudden disinclination toward playing long out of the back, credit Tom Sermanni.

MORE: More detail on the U.S.’s new head coach

source: AP2. Is the defense improving?

National team diehards have long expressed concerns about the team’s defending, with seven goals allowed in six World Cup matches underscoring the team’s problems against top competition. Those problems appeared on the wane when the U.S. gave up only three goals in this year’s first 10 games, but as the Olympic semifinal against Canada showed, the U.S. have to outgun too many teams. Over their last seven games, the U.S. have given up 10 goals.

A lot of that was Pia Sundhage’s willingness to play open games. With a new coach coming in, the defense may need to prove it can lock down opponents.

Christie Rampone (right), the team’s 37-year-old captain, appears to be sticking around to anchor the defense. She’s still among the best players in the world at her position, though the spot to her left – often occupied by Rachel Buehler – needs to be firmed up. That could be done by restoring Buehler’s confidence, though fan favorite Becky Sauerbrunn, who possesses the ball skills to help the U.S.’s stylistic shift, should be considered.

source: Getty Images3. [Obligatory concern about the midfield here]

The States have a lot of depth in attack and on the wings, but in midfield, they’re sorely lacking for choice. Shannon Boxx, Lauren Cheney (right), and Carli Lloyd are Sermanni’s — uh, Ellis’s — current options, with Cheney and Lloyd the likely pairing as the team approaches Canada 2015. Cheney’s positional versatility and Lloyd’s flare for the dramatic make it a capable pair, but against teams like France, Germany, and Japan, the lack of speed, variety, and ball-winning leave the U.S. at a disadvantage.

In Megan Rapinoe and Tobin Heath, Sermanni has wide players capable of playing attacking midfield positions, but it’s unclear whether that role would conflict with Abby Wambach, who (with the emergence of Alex Morgan) spends more time occupying that space, waiting for play to come to her feet.

The other idea would be to restore Sauerbrunn to the midfield, a role she playing in college. At the base of a triangle with Cheney and Lloyd, Sauerbrunn would allow the two more attacked-minded midfielders to venture forward without exposing the defense. Her skill on the ball can act as a fulcrum when the States have established their attack, while her time as a defender make her the best choice to protect (and possibly solve the problems of) a vulnerable defense.

Conceivably carrying many of the qualities of a player like Barcelona’s Sergio Busquets, Sauerbrunn’s a potential response to the midfield strength of the U.S.’s main rivals (Germany, France, Japan). While some have envisioned a similar role for Lauren Cheney, moving Sauerbrunn into midfield would allow one of the States’ goal scoring threats to stay higher up the field.

MORE: Coach Sermanni’s to-do list ahead of Canada 2015

source: Getty Images4. Is Heath really a wide player?

For most of her career at North Carolina, Heath played left midfield for teams that won three national titles, a position that allowed her to take on defenders with her elite one-on-one skills. Three years after playing her last game at Chapel Hill, Heath has started to establish herself in the same position with the national team, though with mixed results.

She still shows the ability to break down a defender one-on-one, but against a higher level of competition, it happens less often. When she does beat her mark, her opposition’s increased athleticism means quicker recovery. Even when Heath’s skills prove a plus, they aren’t enough of an advantage to justify forgoing opportunities to work through Wambach and Morgan, particularly since Heath’s yet to prove a strong crosser of the ball.

Her skill, however, is undeniable, and it’s not difficult to imagine her passing, vision, and quickness being effective in the middle, given the right teammates around her. In the middle, her shot from 18-24 yards can be a real weapon. It all begs a question Serrmani must eventually answer: Is Heath a wide player – somebody who should be taking time away from Heather O’Reilly – or somebody who can help a thin midfield? Her latest audition begins Wednesday.

source: Getty Images5. Is Portland ready for the new big time?

When U.S. Soccer announced the new women’s professional league last week, president Sunil Gulati noted that for the time there would be a direct link between Major League Soccer and one of the top-flight women’s teams. The Paulson family, backers of MLS’s Portland Timbers, had signed on to support a women’s team, one that will likely make Jeld-Wen Field its home.

It’s tempting to see Wednesday night’s game as a test of women’s soccer in Portland, but for a number of reasons, we’re unlikely to see the amped atmosphere that accompanies Timbers games. As of Monday, thanks to little citywide buzz and a $38 entry-level ticket price, only 8,600 tickets had been sold for Wednesday’s match, a number trailing ticket sales for upcoming games in Phoenix, Detroit, and Houston. Add in the late weekday start and the bite of a fall northwest night, and the game won’t threaten Jeld-Wen’s 20,438 capacity.

Perversely, all those circumstances could make Wednesday’s match a good litmus test for women’s professional soccer in Portland. Even though the new team won’t be playing in late fall, there are a number of other obstacles it will have to overcome. Creating buzz will always be a problem (especially in a city that’s fallen for its MLS product), but ticket prices will be much more reasonable.

Given the circumstances that are keeping many away, getting a crowd of over 10,000 for Wednesday’s game against Ireland would be a great sign for the new professional team, especially if two or three of the night’s stars are playing for Portland come March.

EFL Cup Weds preview: East Lancashire Derby highlights slate

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Eighteen teams booked spots Tuesday in the League Cup’s third round, with Watford the lone Premier League side to take a fall.

Six more try their luck on Wednesday, the last day of tournament play before the big boys join up.

[ MORE: EFL Cup Tues. wrap ]

A sleepy big affair is the East Lancashire Derby between Burnley and now League One side Blackburn Rovers, a rivalry which has been staged in three leagues or competitions since the turn of the century. This makes it four, joining the Premier League (2009-10), FA Cup (2004-05) and Championship (six times since 2012-13).

Burnley has three wins and three draws since its last loss to Blackburn, which came via David Dunn penalty at Turf Moor in a Premier League match on March 28, 2010.

Make no mistake, Clarets goalkeeper Tom Heaton thinks it’ll be a fantastic affair (from burnleyfootballclub.com):

“And for the players. Make no mistake, we were all delighted when the draw came in,” said Heaton. “It’s a fantastic match we are all looking forward to. It’s a fantastic night as players, fans and for the club.

“We’ll be going there geared up to win the game and give it everything we’ve got. The new lads coming in will certainly get an eye opener for the atmosphere and how good it is. They’re brilliant games to play in, I’ve enjoyed every minute of them.”

If you’re surprised by the rivalry, you have company in Blackburn boss Tony Mowbray. From Rovers.co.uk:

“I have to say living in the north east of England, Suffolk and Scotland most of my life I never would have grasped that Blackburn and Burnley and the geography of how close they were to be honest,” he said.

“It is not something that has hit me in the face before of a huge rivalry and yet I can feel it from the people around the building who have lived here all their lives how important this game is to them. … We’ll give it our very best shot and leave no stone unturned in trying to get a result.”

Elsewhere…

Southampton, fresh off adding $19 million Dutch center back Wesley Hoedt, will host Wolverhampton Wanderers at St. Mary’s, one of four 2:45 p.m. ET kickoffs.

Also kicking off at that time is Newcastle United and Nottingham Forest at St. James Park, with USMNT fullback Eric Lichaj likely to feature for the visitors, as well as Rotherham United’s visit to Huddersfield Town and Cheltenham Town’s trip to West Ham United.

A quarter-hour later, the final two second round matches kickoff when Burnley hosts Blackburn Rovers and Rochdale heads to Stoke City.

Southampton lands $19 million Dutch CB Hoedt

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Southampton’s added another defender who checks all the boxes, and used its press release to cement its status on the future of want-away center back Virgil Van Dijk.

Saints added Lazio center back Wesley Hoedt on Tuesday, with the reported fee in the neighborhood of $19 million for the 4-times capped Dutch international.

[ MORE: USMNT’s Gooch scores for Sunderland ]

The 6-foot-2 defender is 23 years old, and played 23 matches for i Biancocelesti last season.

Here’s Saints vice chairman Les Reed:

“Finding a naturally left-footed player is even more difficult. We have been tracking central defenders on our target list for the past 12 months and Wesley has always been at the top of that list, so it was important to act when the opportunity came.”

As our own Joe Prince-Wright pointed out, Saints aren’t exactly rolling out the red carpet for Van Dijk’s departure.

Saints also have Maya Yoshida — who won a penalty for Saints this weekend — Jack Stephens, Maya Yoshida, Jan Bednarek and Florin Gardos in their corps.

Will Van Dijk stay? Betting sites have him at 5:6 odds to stay at Southampton, but somehow 1:1 to join Liverpool and 7:1 to head to Chelsea (Man City gets 24:1 odds).

At this point, we’d love to see Van Dijk stay and buck the summer’s (actually much longer than that) gossip as Saints fight for a Top Six place.

UCL preview: Three keys to Liverpool-Hoffenheim

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A pair of away goals are under Liverpool’s wing as the Reds prepare for Wednesday’s UEFA Champions League playoff round second leg versus Hoffenheim at Anfield.

That’s great, but it’s Mark Uth’s late concession goal for Hoffenheim that will have Liverpool supporters wary ahead of the return match.

Three keys to the match for Liverpool? Well, let’s start with an easy one.

1) Avoid these score lines: The 2-1 score line works for the Reds, of course, who will only fail to reach the group stage of the UEFA Champions League through some unlikely scenarios:

  • A two-goals or worse loss at Anfield
  • A 2-1 loss plus failing in penalty kicks
  • A one-goal loss while conceding three or more times

2) Don’t allow gaps in the midfield: Kerem Demirbay was being a little cheeky when he said, “We play better football than Liverpool,” and the sides have one major similarity: If you give them room, they can kill you.

Demirbay is a great example of this. The Confederations Cup winner can rip teams apart in the middle of the pitch, and giving him room allows him to choose between unleashing a cannon from distance and spotting Serge Gnabry, Andrej Kramaric, Sandro Wagner, or even Uth for chances on goal. Heck, even Adam Szalai on the bench is a very good option.

Gnabry and Kramaric played less than a half hour each in Hoffenheim’s 1-0 Bundesliga win over the weekend, while Wagner didn’t play at all. Game on.

3) Embrace the occasion: Jurgen Klopp branded Wednesday’s match and the presumed entry into the UCL group stage “the next step” in the club’s evolution under his watch.

This is Liverpool’s second UCL campaign of this decade, and the first UCL night at Anfield since a 1-1 draw against Basel on Dec. 9, 2014.

That night, Brendan Rodgers trotted out this XI: Mignolet, Johnson, Lovren, Skrtel, Enrique, Gerrard (who scored), Henderson, Lucas, Allen, Sterling, Lambert. His subs used? Coutinho, Moreno, Markovic (the last name earned a red card).

In previous home group games against Real Madrid and Ludogorets Razgrad, the Reds managed two more goals. Gerrard had another and Mario Balotelli the other.

So, and this is hopefully a bit overblown but certainly a concern: A whopping six Liverpool players have played in a home UCL match for Liverpool and no one on the Reds roster has scored a goal at Anfield in the competition.

EFL Cup wrap: USMNT’s Gooch shines; Watford upset

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Six Premier League teams dodged upsets upon entering the League Cup, stylized as the EFL Cup for a second season, but a seventh was not as fortunate.

[ MORE: 426 world clubs, ranked weekly ]


Watford 2-3 Bristol City

Etienne Capoue scored just after halftime to give the Hornets a leg up, but goals from Freddie Hinds and Bobby Reid eight minutes apart gave the Robins a lead that Niclas Eliasson buttressed in stoppage time. Adrian Mariappa pulled one back, but it wasn’t enough for Marco Silva‘s men.

Crystal Palace 2-1 Ipswich Town

The unbeaten Tractor Boys were as much of a problem as advertised, but James McArthur scored in the 76th and 84th minutes to give the Eagles a spot in the next round. Man City loanee Bersant Celina nabbed Ipswich Town’s lone goal.

MK Dons 1-4 Swansea City

Leroy Fer gave Swans a pair of leads at 1-0 and 2-1 before Tammy Abraham and Jordan Ayew scored late to salt away the win at Stadium MK.

Sheffield United 1-4 Leicester City

The popular score line saw Islam Slimani bag a brace in between goals from Demarai Gray and Ahmed Musa.

Carlisle United 1-2 Sunderland

USMNT youngster Lynden Gooch scored an 80th minute winner after assisting on Donald Love‘s opener, as the Black Cats scored a road win.

It’s the 21-year-old Gooch’s first senior goal for the Black Cats in his 19th appearance. It’s also his first assist and should give food for thought to boss Simon Grayson, who has been using him off the bench. Gooch played 362 Premier League minutes last season.

Tuesday’s other results
Aston Villa 4-1 Wigan Athletic
Leeds United 5-1 Newport County
Middlesbrough 3-0 Scunthorpe United
Norwich City 4-1 Charlton Athletic
QPR 1-4 Brentford
Fulham 0-1 Bristol Rovers
Cardiff City 1-2 Burton Albion
Doncaster 2-0 Hull City
Brighton and Hove Albion 1-0 Barnet
Accrington Stanley 1-3 West Brom
Birmingham City 1-2 Bournemouth
Reading 3-1 (aet) Millwall
Bolton 3-2 Sheffield Wednesday
Grimsby Town 0-1 Derby County (1st round match*)

*Derby will face Barnsley in a 2nd round match